Tuesday, June 9, 2015

UN Working Group on Discrimination Against Women to Visit U.S.

Risa Kaufman, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute


Despite the U.S.’ failure to ratify CEDAW, the Women’s Rights treaty, UN human rights experts will have an opportunity to examine the issue of discrimination against women in the U.S. this coming fall. Members of the UN Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice is planning to conduct an official visit to the U.S. November 30– December 11, 2015.

UN Working Groups are “special procedures” of the Human Rights Council, which are meant to be the Council’s “eyes and ears” on human rights throughout the world. Special Procedures base their evaluations on standards drawn from the UDHR and other human rights norms, so they aren’t limited in their review by whether a country has ratified a certain treaty (a fact that is particularly relevant with respect to the United States).

The Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice was established by the Council in 2010 to “identify, promote, and exchange views, in consultation with states and other actors, on good practices related to the elimination of laws that discriminate against women.” It is mandated to prepare a compendium of best practices and carry out a study on ways in which it can engage meaningfully with UN member states.

Among its working methods are country visits, which it undertakes to examine issues related to discrimination against women at the country level, identify “good practices,” and offer concrete recommendations for improvement.  Since assuming its functions in 2011, the Working Group has visited Tunisia, Moldova, Morocco, Iceland, China, Peru, Chile, and Spain.    

Like other special procedures, Working Groups must receive an invitation from a country in order to conduct an official visit.  Following a request from the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice, the U.S. extended such an invitation.

In recent years, a number of U.N. special procedures, including Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and Working Groups with mandates focused on education, extreme poverty, migrants, water and sanitation, adequate housing, violence against women, indigenous peoples, racism, and business and human rights have all made official visits to the United States. In the course of these visits, U.S. civil society has played a crucial role by providing the experts with background information, arranging interviews and consultations with impacted communities, and encouraging and in some cases facilitating meetings with government officials.

At the conclusion of their visits, the U.N. experts issue press statements and, later, reports detailing achievements, observations, and concerns related to human rights in the United States. These fact-finding missions offer unique opportunities for U.S. advocates to mobilize grassroots communities, raise public awareness, exert international pressure, and engage with local, state, and national government officials around local human rights concerns.

The upcoming visit by the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women offers similar opportunities.  The group has expressed particular interest in examining discrimination issues related to women’s economic and social life, such as the informal employment sector, the wage gap, and lack of parental leave; women’s participation in public and political life; access to health and safety, in particular reproductive health; and the health of specific groups, including migrant women, transgender women, and older women.  The group is particularly interested in meeting with vulnerable communities in the United States.

While in the United States, the group will meet with stakeholders and the U.S. government in Washington, D.C., and will conduct 2 or 3 site visits throughout the country. Among the places the group plans to visit is the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, to focus on reproductive justice issues and lack of access to health services.  The Working Group has requested recommendations for additional site visit locations by late July/early August. 

Want to suggest a location for the Working Group to visit? The US Human Rights Network (USHRN) is helping to coordinate the visit by bringing together civil society organizations that work on related issues. Several U.S. groups have already joined with USHRN in this effort, including the Center for Reproductive Rights, the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, CUNY’s International Women’s Human Rights Clinic, the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, and the Equal Justice Initiative.

Those interested in helping to organize the visit or in offering suggestions for in-country site visits should contact Rebecca Landy at the US Human Rights Network, rlandy@ushrnetwork.org

And stay tuned. Later this year, the Working Group will accept more in-depth written background information on the locations they plan to visit and the issues they will encounter.


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